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Renee Ary has been the lead winemaker at Duckhorn Winery in Napa Valley since 2014, producing the famous bottle of merlot that was awardedWine Spectator's top wine in the world in 2017. Courtesy photo
Renee Ary has been the lead winemaker at Duckhorn Winery in Napa Valley since 2014, producing the famous bottle of merlot that was awardedWine Spectator's top wine in the world in 2017. Courtesy photo
Columns Food & Wine Taste of Wine

Taste of Wine: Merlot’s off life support…#MerlotMe!

Merlot’s free at last from the clutches of an outrageous, abusive movie entitled “Sideways” that some 14 years ago, disparaged merlot as nothing more than red toilet water, sending it into a slump that lasted some nine years.

October is winding up Merlot month with the theme of “#MerlotMe” and there are lots yet to celebrate. Firstly, I want to credit Duckhorn Winery in Napa Valley and winemaker Renee Ary for making a modern-day merlot in 2014 that brought out the hidden elegance and supple texture that was named Wine Spectator’s “Wine of the Year” in 2017.

It proved that a jewel lay within quality made merlots. Don Duckhorn, long an advocate of this under-appreciated grape varietal, felt that the elegance was not fully tapped when he said

“I liked the softness, the seductiveness, the color, the fact that it went with a lot of different foods,” Duckhorn said. “It seemed to me to be a wonderful wine to just enjoy. I became enchanted with merlot.”

Duckhorn’s first merlot in 1978 totaled 800 cases. Nearby Three Palms Vineyard has provided the grapes since that time and now is owned by Dan and Margaret Duckhorn.

The latest release, Duckhorn’s Three Palms Merlot 2017 ($110), is a powerful, rich wine with a refined mix of currant, dark cherry and plum flavors that are backed by smooth tannins.

The high-energy #MerlotMe marketing group wanted us to know that merlot is now the third most popular varietal on restaurant wine lists for both by-the-bottle and by-the-glass, and America’s 2nd most popular grape varietal in sales.

The hashtag will get you into the merlot social media info which could keep you glued to your seat almost forever. I don’t really recommend it unless you want to find out what carpal tunnel is all about. Besides, it’s much better if you drink this wine. Like the 2017 Duckhorn Merlot, the following five wines should make you a #MerlotMe fan forever:

Markham Merlot Napa Valley 2017 The Altruist  ($29): Mostly merlot with some cabernet for structure.  Aged in oak for 15 months, it delivers opulent notes of cherry and plum with aromas of vanilla and toast.

Northstar Merlot Columbia Valley Wa. 2018  ($41):  Rich and concentrated yet elegant, handcrafted from the best of the harvest to showcase merlot from the Walla Walla appellation.

Peju Merlot Napa Valley 2018 ($54): Sustainably farmed and family-owned since 1983, Peju allows their grapes extended hang time to build character. The result is a rich, bolder style of merlot.

Pope Valley Merlot Napa Valley 2018 ($25): Mostly merlot with a small amount of cabernet sauvignon from the estate. Aromas of mint, plum, and a whiff of tobacco.  The palate will be pleased with red currant and brier flavors, supple tannins and a long silky finish.

St Supery Merlot Rutherford Napa Valley 2017 ($60): This single-vineyard Merlot is harvested from the winery’s sustainably farmed Rutherford estate vineyard. Hand-sorted by cluster and then by berry ensures the finest grapes are selected to create a well-balanced Merlot. The 2017 summer heat resulted in rich, ripe flavors of black plum and dark mocha, coupled with subtle raspberry and espresso notes. The Rutherford growing area is in the heart of Napa Valley, in an area of rich alluvial, well-drained soils.

Cheap shots in movies aside,  merlot has a storied history from France’s Bordeaux region, as does its close cousin Cabernet Sauvignon. Merlot actually is produced in a larger quantity than cabernet in that region.  It is mostly found in the right bank, in the appellations of Pomerol and St. Emilion while cab was born and raised on the left bank of Bordeaux.

A sudden thought — maybe that scurrilous “Sideways” movie did some good after all. It took some years after, but the thin and weedy brands of cheap merlot that crowded the market are finally behind us and what’s left are the brands similar to what we have reviewed here…a big, rich red with lots of value.

Wine Bytes

— As a follow-up to last week’s J at the SkyDeck column, we learned that J is open for lunch in addition to dinner. We are excited to provide this update based on the positive feedback and interest from last week’s column. J’s hours are Tue-Thu 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., 5:00 to 9:00 p.m., Fri & Sat 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., 5:00 to 10:00 p.m., Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., 5:00 to 9:00 p.m., and closed on Mondays. Reservations at jskydeck.com.

— San Diego Restaurant Week is here now thru Sunday, Oct. 3, with special menu selections at discount prices. Flora bar & kitchen has a starter, Main course and dessert.

The new Italian restaurant in the Carmel Valley district of San Diego offers tempting choices in the Main Course. Choose from Alaskan King Salmon or Angus Short Rib along with a Penne Flora that features mild seared sausage. The cost is $40. per person plus tax and gratuity. Reserve a table at 858-461-0622.

— The Encinitas Chamber of Commerce presents its 25th Oktoberfest from 1 to 6 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 3, outdoors at El Camino Real and Mountain Vista Dr. Enjoy a street fair with vendor booths and family fun zone, German music, food and beverages and a craft beer garden. For more info, call 760-753-6041.

Frank Mangio is a renowned wine connoisseur certified by Wine Spectator and one of the leading commentators on the web. Reach him at [email protected]

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